The Curmudgeon, The Eccentric, and the “Norse God”: How Three Men Impacted the Battle of Gettysburg: Part Two

Part Two in a Series 

Background of Battle:

Maj. Gen. Henry Heth
Maj. Gen. Henry Heth

Brigadier General John Buford had seen all he needed late on the morning of June 30. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was clearly within striking distance of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the 2,900 or so troopers Buford had with him.

A mixed column of Confederate troops approached Herr Ridge, some 2 miles from the center of Gettysburg. Under the impression that there were no Federal troops in the area, Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew pressed forward, but as the column crossed Willoughby Run the southerners spotted an organized group of horsemen. It was a squadron of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Though Pettigrew was a novice at war, he was a very well educated man, who quickly surmised the situation and turned back from whence he came, Cashtown. The shadowy horsemen following at a safe, but noticeable distance.

Pettigrew reported what he had found to his division commander Major General Henry Heth, who still, like many other Confederate general officers, held the belief that the Federal Army of the Potomac was still in Maryland. Being a good soldier, Heth reported Pettigrew’s findings to Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill. Heth did not believe that Pettigrew had seen any elements of the Federal army, rather Heth believed that the North Carolinian had only seen local scouts. Hill agreed with Heth’s summation of the action that day and permitted his subordinate to move to Gettysburg the next day and finish what Pettigrew could not, collecting supplies.

Col. William Gamble
Col. William Gamble

Meanwhile, having located at least a portion of the Confederate Army, Buford set to work. He established his headquarters in the Eagle Hotel along Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg. The veteran officer then sent word of his findings to Left Wing commander Major General John F. Reynolds and cavalry commander Alfred Pleasonton. Finally, Buford setup a long, thin picket line of vidette’s around three-quarters of Gettysburg. From the Hanover Road on the east side of Gettysburg, north to the Carlisle Road then arching down across the Chambersburg Pike, where it finally terminated near the Fairfield Road. Buford’s troopers were able to cover eight of the roads leading into the town from the east, north, and west. Behind the line of vidette’s were a number of reserve positions that could quickly send troopers to threatened points. Furthest to the rear was the bulk of Buford’s troopers, who took position on the north and west sides of the town. Thus the stage was set for what would become the most well know battle of the American Civil War.

On the morning of July 1st, 1863 Confederate troops began their westward advance towards the town. Near 7:30 AM the first shot was fired by a Federal outpost at the home of Ephraim Wisler (sometimes spelled Whistler). On the morning of July 1st, James J. Archer’s brigade was the vanguard unit leading Lee’s army to Battle at Gettysburg. Archer’s men were having a slow time with the cavalry, who mounted and dismounted at will, forcing the foot soldiers to engage and disengage time and again. Near 10:30 AM, with his entire brigade now inline of battle, moved from Springs Hotel Woods on Herr’s Ridge and were hotly contested by Colonel William Gamble’s blue-coated troopers. “We continued to advance, but in a walk” wrote Pvt. William H. Moon of the 13th Tennessee, “loading and firing as we went, until we reached a strip of low land along the Run. There we were protected from the fire of the enemy by an abrupt rise across the Run in our front. We halted to reform, reload, catch our breath, and cool off a little.” Archer pressed to the eastern bank of Willoughby’s Run, a small stream at the base of McPherson Ridge utilizing the stream bed for cover.

Gettysburg, July 1st-Near 10 AM. Map by Hal Jespersen,
Gettysburg, July 1st-Near 10 AM. Map by Hal Jespersen,

Archer’s men pushed up from the banks of the Run only making it about 75 yards only to be met by Union infantry. The Federal 1st Corps arrived on the scene to right the ship.

Two Federal brigades engaged Archer’s men and another Confederate brigade under Joseph Davis north of the Chambersburg Pike, and along, and in, an unfinished railroad cut.

Archer’s men put up a stubborn resistance. They felled both the colonel and lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Wisconsin and killed John Reynolds, but the exhaustion of chasing cavalry and now the overwhelming numbers of the newly arrived “Iron Brigade” was too much for Archer’s men to handle. The 24th Michigan found Archer’s left flank and began to engulf it. The southerners fled toward Willoughby Run and Herr Ridge. On Archer’s right the situation went from bad to worse. While taking in the changing situation Archer was captured near a stone quarry on the northwest side of the woodlot. Archer’s brigade was effectively out of the fight for the remainder of the morning.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis
Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis

Joe Davis’s mixed Mississippi-North Carolina brigade rolled forward from Herr Ridge and engaged with three Federal regiments of Lysander Cutler’s brigade. Though the butternut soldiers had initial success, they lost unit cohesion, three regimental commanders, and lacking Davis’ presence at the front, early Confederate hopes for victory at Gettysburg had been dashed; which should have set the stage for a true leader to take the reins.

The Army of the Potomac benefited greatly early on July 1st due to the fact that no high ranking Confederate officer seemed to want to take control of the fight at Gettysburg. Division commander Henry Heth had started the battle of Gettysburg, which was growing from a minor skirmisher to a pitched battle, something Robert E. Lee wanted to avoid until his army was fully concentrated. Heth had committed only two brigades and a battalion of artillery at this point and could have actually avoided a pitched battle if he had thrown forward just one more brigade, which would have driven the Federal 1st Corps off of McPherson Ridge and back into the town.

Heth’s immediate superior, A.P. Hill, was nearly 5 miles away, as was becoming the norm, sick and lying on a cot at the Cashtown Inn. Lee and his second-in-command James Longstreet were still making their way to Cashtown, along a road that was bottle-necking due to the fighting up ahead.

Yet with no true head on the snake of command this day, Henry Heth had nearly blundered to victory.

By noon the situation at Gettysburg was akin to a pot boiling over and no cook in the Confederate kitchen to turn off the burner. Heth had proven thus far that he was clearly in over his head. Solid leadership was needed at the front.

Around noon, Lee’s first corps commander arrived on the field. Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell was perhaps the most eccentric general in an army full of eccentrics. Ewell, a Virginian by birth, and a graduated of the West Point class of 1840, was one of the most respected officers in Lee’s army at the outset of the Gettysburg Campaign.

The successor to Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Ewell had put together a solid fighting record until wounded in the left knee at the Battle of Groveton (also known as Brawner’s Farm). Ewell’s left leg was amputated and Ewell was slow to recover from the wound and he sat on the sidelines for the next nine months. (It should be noted that Ewell’s crutches slipped on ice Christmas Day 1862. The general fell to the ground and a piece of bone in the stump broke off and the wound began to hemorrhage).

Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell

In the days following Jackson’s death, May 10, 1863, Lee reorganized his army from two infantry corps into three. The looming question was to whom should the command of Jackson’s old Second Corps go? Lee decided on Ewell, who had worked well under Jackson and held the respect of the men of Second Corps, as well as Jackson’s old staff, who Ewell would retain.

The newly minted corps commander was described:

“…as a compound of anomalies, the oddest, most eccentric genius in the Confederate Army…No man had a better heart nor a worse manner of showing it. He was in truth as tender and sympathetic as a woman, but, even under the slight provocation, he became externally as rough as a polar bear, and the needles with which he pricked sensibilities were more numerous and keener than porcupine quills. His written orders were full, accurate, and lucid; but his verbal orders or directions, especially when under intense excitement, no man could comprehend. At such times his eyes would flash with a peculiar brilliancy, and his brain far outran his tongue.”

Due to his wound he normally road in a carriage, but could take to horse and, “not only rode in battle like a cow-boy on the plains, but in the whirlwind of the strife his brain acted with the precision and rapidity of a Gatling gun.”

The highly profane general (a man after my own heart) had a “…bald head, & bright eyes, & his long nose (like a wood cock’s…)” was the antithesis of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and a cadre of other southern officers. Yet, he seemed to be the perfect fit for corps command, in the Army of Northern Virginia.

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